LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The New York Times reported this week that the Trump administration held secret meetings with Venezuelan military officials to discuss a potential coup against President Nicolas Maduro, that country's authoritarian leader. Since Maduro came to power in 2013, Venezuela has suffered - hyperinflation, a decimated economy, a food and drug shortage and now a refugee crisis. Ernesto Londono is the Brazil bureau chief for The New York Times. And he broke the story, along with his colleague Nick Casey. And he joins me now. Good morning.
ERNESTO LONDONO: Hi, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When and where did these talks take place, and what was discussed?
LONDONO: Well, Lulu, the genesis of this appears to be a remark that President Trump made about a year ago, last August, when he declared that the United States had a military option for Venezuela. Down in Caracas, there were some senior members of the military who had soured on Nicolas Maduro. And they perked up when they heard this. They wondered if the Trump administration might be willing to help them overthrow their commander in chief. So what happens next is they reach out discreetly overseas. They approach a U.S. embassy, and they ask for a meeting. At the White House officials take a look at this, and they weigh the pros and cons. And ultimately, they decided they want to hear from these guys. They wanted to meet with them.
So over the course of at least three secret meetings that happened abroad, an American diplomat established a back channel with these dissident officers. At one point, the Venezuelans ask if the United States would give them encrypted radios. They said they needed to have a means to communicate more securely. Washington takes this into account and ultimately decides not to. And as we understand it, there are, in recent months, a series of plans that are set in motion to detain Nicolas Maduro and oust his government. However, there are leaks. And none of these plans succeed. And now several of the plotters are behind bars.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You make clear in your reporting that nothing came of these talks, that the United States decided not to involve themselves in these coup plans. But one of the military commanders involved in the talks is himself a corrupt official. He's been accused of torture, jailing political prisoners, drug trafficking. Tell us who he is.
LONDONO: Well, Lulu, we provided relatively few details about this individual because we interviewed him on the condition of anonymity. But I think it's important to take a step back and consider who these interlocutors are and how thorny a question it is whether it makes sense for Washington to deal with them. The top ranks of the Venezuelan military include many people who are broadly considered to be very corrupt, involved in drug trafficking and complicit in human rights abuses. So it's fair to say that this was a really complicated question that has bedeviled Washington for some time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should remember not only the history of military intervention by the United States in Latin America, but last week, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said there was now a strong argument for U.S. military intervention. That's coming from someone who has a very prominent role in the U.S. government and a lot of focus on Latin America. Does anything in your reporting suggest that this may be something the administration is contemplating?
LONDONO: Well, that's right, Lulu. And Senator Rubio has sought to become a loud and prominent voice in the White House on Latin America's strategy. We've also heard that President Trump has entertained this idea, has been curious about this idea and has asked his advisers about, you know, what the United States could do in the way of military options. I would say, you know, from my reporting, it's clear that many in Washington regard this possibility that the United States would put boots on the ground in Venezuela as very remote. And at the Pentagon specifically, Defense Secretary Mattis, I think, would be a voice of caution, outlining the many ways in which American military - unintended consequences.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ernesto Londono is the Brazil bureau chief for The New York Times. Thank you very much.
LONDONO: My pleasure Lulu.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.